France Relaxes DRM Proposal

Steve Javors
PARIS — The upper house of the French Parliament has made last-minute changes to a bill that would have effectively relaxed digital rights management restrictions and interoperability issues for playing MP3 files. The politicians softened their stance, which would have forced Apple and other providers of copy-protected music to share its DRM license, making its music playable on any device.

Apple, Microsoft and Sony all have proprietary software in place that prevent users from playing and downloading songs onto a rival’s competing digital music player. For example, a song purchased through iTunes will not play on a Sony device.

Apple provided the most vociferous opposition to the bill, calling it “state-sponsored piracy.” Technology experts believed if the original wording of the law passed, Apple would cease to do business in France. The company’s non-interoperable DRM technology called Fairplay is a big reason why Apple dominates the MP3 player marketplace with the ubiquitous iPod and its iTunes store, the largest seller of digital music downloads in the world. Vivendi Universal and Time Warned joined the chorus opposing the bill.

“France has adopted an entirely new and unique approach to managing digital music and films that could be a model for other countries to follow,” Jonathan Arber, an analyst at a consulting firm in London, said. “Everyone will be watching the impact six months down the line to see whether consumers or companies have benefited.”

While the bill passed the French Senate, most of the controversial language had been removed or toned down. The bill still manages to reduce piracy penalties to a lesser offense, requires software companies to furnish the government with details about how its programs work and creates a bureau with authority over digital copyright issues.

The agency will work to establish guidelines for how many times users can copy digital music files among other copyright protection concerns. Currently, the software providers in conjunction with the copyright holders decide these issues.

“This body they have created is set up to force companies to license their protection technology to their competitors,” Francisco Mingorance, the director of public policy of the Business Software Alliance, told the International Herald Tribune. “Once you break copy protection technology and let the genie out of the bottle in France, there is no way back.”

The senate’s motive in drafting the bill was to encourage competition in the digital music marketplace and innovate the way online distribution models operate.